#TDiRS22: Into the darkness

The second book of the Dark Is Rising readalong, hosted by AnnaBookBel, is The Dark Is Rising itself — originally titled The Gift of Gramarye, but a publisher nixed that because of the fear that young readers would think the book was about grammar. Point taken, but in fact the chapter in which our protagonist, young Will Stanton, receives the gift of gramarye (magical knowledge) is so wonderful that it might help to give readers a different view of that dreaded subject. Certainly it always stuck with me as a sort of metaphor for the magic of reading, through which one can become and experience all things.

But there’s quite a road to travel before we get there. Will is an ordinary English boy, youngest in a family of nine children, who is looking forward to his eleventh birthday and to Christmas. His simple world is turned upside down when he experiences a number of unsettling events and meets strange characters, some frightening, some awe-inspiring. He learns that he is actually the last-born of the Old Ones, a league of fighters against the rising forces of the Dark. His task is to collect the Six Signs of the Light, ancient symbols in the form of a quartered circle, which were forged long ago for this fateful time. Over the days of Christmastide, as the Dark throws physical and psychological obstacles in his way, Will struggles to complete his task and come to terms with his new destiny.

Illustration by Laura Carlin

It all sounds a bit heavy-handed, but Cooper keeps it from being so with her marvelous evocations of landscape, homely family scenes, skillfully interwoven bits of folklore and legend, and creepy moments interspersed with lovely, numinous ones. Will is not torn out of his ordinary life into a different world; the two worlds interpenetrate and fade in and out, and this provides much of what he must learn to negotiate. Not everyone sees what he sees, and often he finds himself having to hold two different realities at once. It’s not easy for Will to reconcile his preteen-boy self with his immense new role, and one can feel for his dilemma.

I lapped all this up as a child, and still appreciate the many unforgettable images that it planted in my mind: the mysterious doors with their haunting music; Will and his master-in-magic Merriman Lyon stepping through time as they sing “Good King Wenceslas;” the uncanny ride of Herne the Hunter; the ancient ship-burial with its noble king rising from the frozen Thames; the stone hall outside of Time with its candles and tapestries; the elemental forces of snows and floods, fire, cold, dark and light.

But now, I have to admit that I find the dualistic conflict of Light and Dark troubling. Without a third element to round things out, it’s quite likely that all such conflicts are really two sides of the same coin. Too much light is just as bad as too much dark; we need both, and any attempt by one to eliminate the other is problematic.

It’s interesting that the words Good and Evil are never explicitly used, and the way the Light treats their servant Hawkin appears quite cold and unfeeling…evil, in other words. Although the Light offers beauty, skill, knowledge, and insight, while the Dark only offers a false sense of power, can either be said to be truly good? The love and compassion that seem to me integral to true goodness appear to be lacking in both. Surely more could have been done to rescue Hawkin, rather than taxing him past his strength, leaving him to a cruel fate, and then blaming him for moral weakness.

A more heart-centered quality seems to be represented by the Lady with the rose-colored ring, a mysterious figure whose origins I’ve never quite understood. (Is she a goddess? A saint? Was Cooper referring to someone in particular? If anybody has some insight, please elucidate.) Tellingly, the Lady is incapacitated early in the story when Will makes a foolish beginner’s mistake and she has to expend her power against an assault by the Dark. She will recuperate and return, but in the meantime much of the heart goes out of the Light and their quest.

Illustration by Laura Carlin

Shortly after finishing this reread, while mulling over these thoughts, I came across a passage in one of Rachel Naomi Remen’s wonderful stories about the art of healing. She speaks of how some of her patients who were struggling with chronic or terminal illness came to her with frightening nightmares or inner experiences of darkness, and she encouraged them to go carefully into that darkness and see what they found there. It turned out that in the dark they experienced rest, security, safety, a sense of being held. They were taken completely by surprise by the power of the energy they experienced when they overcame their fear of the unknown Dark.

“We often think of health and sickness as an expression of the goodness/evil polarity,” Dr. Remen says. “We say ‘I feel bad’ when we feel sick and ‘I feel good’ when we recover. Darkness and light are a further extension of this polarity: healing, as a function of the good, is associated with light, and sickness, as a function of evil, is associated with darkness.” But does darkness deserve all this bad press? The place of our origin, the womb in which we are carried before birth, is a place of darkness. In alchemy, a sealed flask is required for the process of purification and transformation.

For most of my life, I wanted nothing more than to be like Will, to learn all secrets on heaven and earth and to say, with the Book of Gramarye, “Old Math ap Mathonwy knew no more than I.” But now, I would rather learn the way of the Lady, the way of loving sacrifice, of transformation within the dark places. I wish there had been more about this in the book, but maybe it’s something we all have to learn for ourselves. I know it’s not to be found in the pages of any book — not completely. Only life can teach us these lessons.

Having read the rest of the series, I know that more moral complexity does come through in the latter books, as well as a deeper exploration of the feminine in the next book, Greenwitch, and I look forward to that. As for Dark, I enjoyed its many marvelous qualities, while retaining these few reservations. I think of it whenever I hear carols sung by candlelight in a stone hall, or am snowbound by a particularly heavy storm, or watch black birds ominously circling. It’s one of the books that shaped my imagination, and I think I’m all the richer for it.

And you? What did you think, whether this was your first read or one of many?

4 thoughts on “#TDiRS22: Into the darkness

  1. What a lovely review. I’m not reading along at the moment but I have strong memories of this – first read on its own as a child, then repeatedly as part of the series. I think of it when I see that cross and circle shape or see black birds circling in winter – and when I see a green velvet coat! I like your point about too much light or dark and your different thoughts as you re-read.

  2. Much here in this piece to pore over, Lory, thank you, and I absolutely agree with your comments about Light and Dark not necessarily equating to Good and Evil. Since I’ve only ever got as far as the third title in the sequence I do hope there will be resolution (enlightenment?!) in the fifth when I get there.

    As for the Lady / Miss Greythorne I too have questions about her nature and role, but for the moment am content to just let her be mysterious, enigmatic, even ineffable!

    And I can’t help recalling The Box of Delights when thinking of the Christmas associations and emotions that Cooper evokes here, infusing all the senses with things like food, wood smoke, candles, carol singing and the icy experiences that come with frost and snow.

    1. Miss Greythorne is one of the Old Ones, but the Lady seems of another category of being entirely. I was hoping you could shed some light on the question, but as you say perhaps it just needs to remain a mystery.

      I read The Box of Delights only many years after this, but you are right that the two books have much in common … although Cooper is utterly lacking the sort of whimsy that Masefield puts into his Christmas tale — along with the annoying ending of it all being a dream, thankfully.

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